Muslims and the problem of modern entertainment

In recent years an increasing proportion of entertainment in Muslim countries has come from the West, and particularly from the US. This has raised questions about whether such entertainment is proper for Muslim families and societies. More fundamentally, questions have also been raised about the nature of entertainment, and about what forms it might take for Muslims.

To understand this issue, it must first be said that the incursion of American entertainment in the Muslim world is no accident. It is a matter of policy, and a large part of this policy is economic. Apart from weaponry, America’s largest export product in the world is its entertainment. This points to both the economics and politics of entertainment, which need to be analysed separately from aesthetic and qualitative questions. Of course there is concern about popular American programmes such as Baywatch and Friends, but one needs to consider first something apart from programme content, namely the fundamental question, "What is entertainment?"

Entertainment used be something people did for each other, and it was bound up with notions of hospitality and kindness to guests. It later became intertwined with community identity, with respect to the forms of entertainment preferred by different peoples in different places at different times. Most of all this is irrelevant today, at least for the time being, because now when people speak of entertainment they are speaking mostly about mass media commodities, which are bought and sold in the global marketplace like many another commodity. So the real question is how people, Muslims included, turned something intimate and hospitable like entertainment over to a global corporate apparatus that has its eyes on profits above all? Why did that happen? More importantly, can older forms of entertainment be recovered from the global mega-media monopolies that now seem to control everything? Most radically, do people still retain the ability to entertain themselves outside this corporate matrix? On one level such important questions need prolonged discussion and meditation, but there are various ways to approach this.

In the modern world much of what is seen as entertainment is related to consumerism, and even games and toys that may have some limited benefit for developing the minds of children are not immune from this. Parents can often not help exposing their children to mass entertainment, and it is difficult to protect children, who are more involved by peer-pressure in places outside the home. Like most peoples living modern lifestyles, Muslims have become consumers of other people’s entertainment. This is in some ways a pathology of the modern world, and it seems to be getting worse. In the past, people found various ways to entertain themselves and each other, and it usually involved some sort of community activity. Today, people have turned this very important local and family activity over to distant producers. The antidote to this problem is simple and difficult at the same time. The simple part is to avoid consumerism, and just walk away. Nobody actually forces anyone else to consume; think of how absurd it would be if everyone had to be marched at gunpoint to the toy store to buy the latest plastic contraption, or handcuffed to a chair and forced to watch television each night. As matters stand now, people are apparently voluntarily turning their ability to entertain one another over to distant and faceless producers.

The easy part, then, is to say, "Just walk away." But the hard part is to answer the question, "then what?" What are we to do when the television has been switched off, when the plastic toys have been put in the recycling bin, when the computers and gadgets are gone, or out of bounds? This leads to the question of Muslims producing culture, and not just consuming it. Instead of finding ways to enslave themselves further to the corporate consumerist machine, is it possible for Muslims to salvage anything from their own local cultures that can provide a sense of satisfaction and happiness, to fill the void many will no doubt feel when the electronic machinery is off? The sooner we start trying to answer these questions, the better.

First, serious discussions must be held about the qualities of entertainment, which have to include hard questions such as, for instance, "Is entertainment necessary? And if so, why?" As for saving one’s children from the global corporate entertainment matrix, in some ways schooling does far more damage to children than Barney or Friends, but that is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it for now to say that most of us are institutionally trained to be consumers, and despite pretensions of learning and freedom institutions have actually severely circumscribed human possibilities, to the point that most of us cannot think of ways to entertain ourselves.

In the modern world the question of entertainment is becoming more and more inseparable from the question of the mass-media. In human history that is an aberration: people in many places and times found ways to entertain themselves and each other long before the media giants appeared. If one visits a typical modern middle-class home, one will see a voluntary form of separation or segregation being practised. The children are in one room playing video-games, Dad is watching the game with his mates, Mom is surfing the net or chatting on the phone with her friends, and Grandma is reading a magazine or the latest novel. Although not universal, this picture is quite typical: it is a design, not an accident. This is known as "audience segmentation", and is driven by marketing. Somehow, almost everyone has fallen prey.

So, before addressing the question of Muslims practising separation based on gender, which seems to be a fad in some Muslim circles these days, there has to be a larger discussion on the much more complex topic of the ways that media-age entertainment separates people into all sorts of age- and gender-based groups. If any of us want healthy entertainment, then first of all anything that can help to mend some of these fractures is good. How about boys and men, girls and women, doing things together? Old people and children? What happened to all that? The big question is not about Muslims practising segregation; the big question is about mass-produced, narrowly targeted forms of entertainment sundering social and cultural unities, and how they have replaced forms of face-to-face interaction. The answer is to develop entertainment that can bring people back together. Otherwise, the whole idea of family becomes an illusion.

Some people in the West feel that if Muslims were in the mainstream media more, such as being producers or actors of drama, comedy, game shows and advertisements, then they would be more accepted in society and could gain better control over their own entertainment. While the idea of a daytime drama or situation-comedy was born in the US, those who are interested in how these might look elsewhere can find all they can stomach in the Arab media: on satellite TV stations such as LBC, MBC and Mustaqbal. Whether this makes people more acceptable to society is debatable. In some cases, such programmes are self-parodies, and even when they are not they can be taken as such by Western audiences. In many ways the "locally" produced entertainment is merely a poor-quality imitation of globally distributed productions, mostly emanating from the US. Any new fad in the US is slavishly picked up and localized by regional copy-cats. For example, the fad of "reality TV" is taking root on several Arab television channels, as well as elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Apart from television, there are (or used to be until recently) a lot of everyday entertainments in which Muslims could and did participate, and yet about which we now seem to feel uncomfortable, especially those of us that are typically not "religious": like listening to music or playing fantasy computer games. Some go so far as to ask for fatwas banning such forms of entertainment. But before a fatwa can be effective, various social conditions have to obtain. Anyone who takes the time to do some research will find that fatwas on the issue of entertainment are diverse in their responses and outlooks, and for the most part reflect the time and place in which they were made. Today’s age is media-driven, and so when one talks about listening to music, for example, this means mediated music by way of electronic reproductions of distant performances. Television and computer-games are other examples of mediated experiences. So, in addition to asking for fatwas for or against what amounts to pieces of machinery and streams of data, perhaps this question can be constructively addressed through self-reflection. This has to involve taking a deep hard look at ourselves and what we get up to, and asking questions like those posed above, such as "What is entertainment for?" and "How did people entertain themselves before the media age?" And these are not questions for Muslims alone, since in many ways humanity is in some sort of "recline," passively consuming entertainment and other products. To some extent, even seeking a fatwa about what to watch on television (or whether to watch television) is still to be acting like a consumer. Part of the problem is the institutionalized schooling to which children are subjected. That form of schooling, euphemistically called "education," has as its primary outcome the creation of consumers who are barely able to think for themselves and always in need of some fix from somewhere else, whether it be from television or from more schooling, or from therapy, or from personal advice from someone else. What has happened to self-reflection? Maybe the modern discomfort that people feel is not caused only by music and television, which implies a sort of guilt complex; maybe it is deeper than that: maybe people are lamenting the loss or degradation of some vital part of their humanity.

Islam as a deen enjoins certain kinds of activities, which lean more toward practical, communal or contemplative endeavours. In many ways, modern entertainment is neither practical nor contemplative, so from the outset there is possibly a strong case to be made against it, especially against the mediated, mass-produced forms. But the problem is that Muslims are left with the realization that most people are presently engaged in one form or another of entertainment, usually as consumers, so it is difficult just to say "it’s haram" and leave it at that. More constructively, perhaps Muslims need to ask questions about the forms of entertainment they consume, and then take the further step of becoming the producers of their own culturally grounded entertainments. This does not mean local versions of American fare, such as Muslim "reality TV" or the Arab version of the cartoon "South Park." What seems to be necessary is for Muslims to find ways to entertain themselves, to produce our entertainments in our own communities and in our families, and not always as a mediated form. If people have to listen to music, then they can try making their own; if one has to look at images and pictures, then perhaps one should learn to paint, or take up photography; if people have to hear stories, then we should tell them to one another. Story-telling used to be a revered art, and families would tell each other stories every night. That got taken over first by books, which set down certain versions of stories over others, and then by the electronic media, which distributes selected stories on a global scale. What all this seems to suggest is that people like to listen to pleasing sounds, they like to look at interesting pictures, and they like to hear engaging stories, so maybe a way to escape the media mega-machine is developing more face-to-face entertainment, in appropriate family or community groups, as a first step toward liberation from American entertainment.

Perhaps the best place to start is for us to encourage eachother to develop various sorts of creative arts, not for mastery of learning or as a career goal, but to fill the void in life that seems to be felt by many people who spend countless hours in front of the television or computer screen. Muslims through the ages have actively developed a rich vocabulary in the decorative, performing, plastic, sound and visual arts, all of which can be contemplative and constructive, as well as rewarding, both for the family and for the community. Any of these, taken up as what might be called a "hobby," is certainly a better way to spend "idle time" than in consuming media commodities produced by distant industries with questionable moral and ethical worth. This will take local and regional commitment and creativity, on the part of families and communities alike, to build an environment inside and outside the home, in which the young and old can learn, once more, how to entertain themselves and one another, not as a new way of wasting time but as way to rediscover the contemplative and community-oriented forms of interaction that are deeply rooted in traditional values.

The growing addiction to American entertainment is a symptom of a larger problem of identity in the Muslim world, and elsewhere. Young people are no longer satisfied with local culture, and find themselves yearning for the modern American lifestyle, a parody of which is seen in American TV shows. These parodies are in turn parodied by local producers, all of which creates a media-driven dream world. Locality has little to do with this, since all of these dreams have the same set of values, despite the surface differences of language and nationality. American entertainment is about life as an experiment, about trying to buy and sell happiness, about voyeurism and elevating individual desires above all else, and about life as a never-ending round of fun and games. So in what ways did peoples in older, more independent cultures entertain themselves? How did people entertain themselves and each other before the media age? What is fun and happiness across cultures? What is family entertainment? Without discussing these questions, with an eye toward creating local and community concepts and practices of entertainment, Muslims will simply remain passive consumers.